Iranians wave national flags as they listen to a public speech by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the eastern city of Shahroud on the 4th of December 2018. Picture by Ebrahim Seydi/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. While Iran’s regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia along with some Iranian opposition groups may feel encouraged by President Trump’s psychological war against Iran symbolized by his rejection of the nuclear agreement and the re-imposition of US sanctions, they are, somewhat less certain about his end game. This is due to the fact that US policy on the one hand hints at promoting regime change in all but name while on the other, it seeks to pressure Iran for talks regarding a new ‘deal’, which would ostensibly make regime change redundant.
Signals from Washington are probably equally confusing for the Iranian authorities. While it is easy on the one hand for all parties to unanimously dismiss American ‘maximalist demands’, there are no doubt serious divisions at the highest levels on the subject of engagement with the US. Some senior figures, concerned with the deteriorating state of the Iranian economy and its resultant effect on the lives of an already restive population, seek new ways for ending Iran’s 40-year old estrangement with the US. Others, however, led most crucially by the Iranian Supreme Leader are convinced that any such rapprochement would initiate a process whereby their domination of the Iranian state could be irrevocably reversed.
With Russian, Chinese and European backing in every feasible way, the Islamic regime is more than likely to withstand US pressures for at least the remainder of Trump’s current term. By violating the nuclear deal, instead of isolating Iran, the US administration has in fact isolated itself. Also, failure on its part to in any way alter the status quo in Iran in the next several months is more likely to seriously dent the administration’s own credibility as it prepares for the upcoming presidential elections.
At the regional level, it would also be a mistake to miscalculate Iran’s capabilities for fending off US led pressures aimed at curbing its power and influence. Apart from being one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, it is a fact that no final outcome for the various existing regional conflicts can be attained without explicit Iranian cooperation. If anything, events in the past few years, ranging from the tacit breakup of the GCC and the surreal behaviour of Saudi Arabia and UAE in Yemen and their efforts to overpower and intimidate smaller Gulf countries like Qatar, have only helped to solidify and strengthen Iran’s position in the region. Recent events such as the grotesque murder of Jamal Khasooghi and the absurd military adventures of the UAE in wanting to expand its so-called ‘military presence’ to areas as far away from its tiny homeland as the Horn of Africa, have in the eyes of many regional players exonerated Iran and legitimized its actions.
US sanctions will almost certainly affect the lives of ordinary citizens in Iran who are the most obvious victims of a contracting economy plagued by hyperinflation, rising unemployment and unchecked corruption. However, it does not necessarily follow that a disgruntled public will have the capacity for implementing the kind of political change sought by Washington and its regional friends - especially in view of the fact that the Iranian regime is not isolated as before and enjoys open support from Russia, China and the EU.
Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, many regional states are themselves weary of any major change in Iran that results in a situation whereby they are overwhelmed by a fortified and arrogant Saudi state, which is perceived by countries like Oman and Qatar to be a more dangerous irritation. Similar considerations also apply to Iraq and Turkey with whom Iran enjoys wide economic ties and broad consensus on a number of key ethnic and sectarian issues.
A more constructive approach
Instead of pointless bullying, it is more prudent for all parties wanting to see positive change in Iran to focus more on the genuine disagreements that currently exist over a number of key issues among the Iranian ruling establishment and most notably the subject of engagement with the US. Today, there are many senior officials who have come to the conclusion that Iranian national interests dictate that the whole question of Iran-US relations be revisited on the basis of current priorities and not events that transpired more than 40 years ago. Opposed to them are smaller groupings under the thumb of the Supreme Leader and in possession of almost all the key levers of real power in Iran, who see uncompromising hostility towards the US as the best camouflage for protecting their power and their ill-gotten gains from corrupt and unchecked practices.
Instead of exploiting these differences, US grandstanding that makes no distinction between potential friends and hardened enemies only incites various political rivals inside the ruling establishment to work together against a common existential threat.
While there are clear limitations to what the US can do, the process for positive and peaceful change in Iran – such as ‘national reconciliation’, which can only be orchestrated by Iranians themselves can nevertheless be advanced if US narrative was adjusted in such way to be more in ‘synch’ with realities on the ground and not simply restricted to hostile and at times highly exaggerated denunciations.